Thoughts On The Robin Van Persie Situation

July 5, 2012

By now you must have seen this statement on RvP’s official website announcing his decision to not renew his contract with Arsenal.

This was probably an unsurprising yet gut-wrenching moment for many Arsenal fans. Ever since his decision to postpone talks to the summer, which only led to a ban on media interaction imposed by the club, there have been indications that Van Persie was not happy at the club and will not renew his contract. But the manner in which he’s acknowledged the growing fears is massively disappointing.

I have seen many reactions to the Dutchman’s statement. Hurt or pain is by far the most common sentiment expressed even if people have different ways of dealing with it. Some have channeled that into anger or, worse, hatred towards the player. Others have rationalized and said that Arsenal can win without last season’s Player of the Year. There are also those who’ve found a way to blame Wenger for this scenario while others are against the board or the CEO.

None of these views are completely incorrect or unjustified. However, hardly any respectfully examines the situation from all sides’ perspective.

Let’s start with the player – What’s in it for RvP?

The most common interpretation I have seen seems to be one that Van Persie wants more money and has had his head turned. This line of thought suggests that the Dutchman is trying to force the club’s hand so that he can sign a vastly improved contract at a super-rich club.

Maybe that’s the case. I am not inside the striker’s head so I can’t be certain. But if money were the most important factor why would he not go to Russia or China? Or even if he wanted to stay in Europe, why would RvP not wait another six months when he could sign a staggering new contract in January at a club of his choice as a free agent. Surely, he’d get a hefty signing bonus as the acquiring club will not have to pay any fees to Arsenal. That reason might also tempt some of the biggest clubs in European football if they’re not already interested now due to the fees that they might have to pay.

So why would a reasonably intelligent man sacrifice so many choices and such possibilities to force the club’s hand? The cynical view might be that his value will drop in the next six months, especially if he gets injured, but that really is a matter of luck. Every club that wants to sign him now knows his past record and it won’t dramatically change come January.

If I were Robin and I really wanted a big money deal I’d strongly focus on producing an extraordinary first half of the season for Arsenal in order to secure what could be the biggest deal anyone has seen in football.

Given these thoughts, I find it very hard to accept this is about the money and it is unfortunate that so many people have formed such opinions based on pure speculation. Van Persie will get big money wherever he goes but that will be the effect of his talent and work ethic, and not the cause behind his statement.

Discounting money as a factor we come to the reason mentioned by Arsenal’s captain (former?) in his statement – “it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward”

It’s purposely vague but the bottom line seems obvious. He wants to win major titles, with the team and as an individual. Arsenal have not fulfilled that ambition in recent years and there can be genuine doubts about their ability to do so next year.

Of course, the club have strengthened and significantly at that. Podolski and Giroud are not inconsiderable acquisitions. Clearly though, it’s not enough for the Dutchman. There is an interesting viewpoint that nothing Arsenal did in the market would have convinced him to sign.

This is not hard to see. In order to win the league these days a club has to have strikers worth £25-30M on the bench. Think about the likes of Dzeko, Berbatov, and Higuain, or Shevchenko if we go back a few years. They should also have enough depth to deal with any injuries or issues with key players. Think about Tevez and how City had to deal with him. The Nuri Sahin’s of this world, a class act at a team like Dortmund, are only fillers at these footballing superpowers. And this is not limited to strikers or attacking players, you need depth across all positions in the squad.

To win major trophies like the Premier League, La Liga, or the Champions League teams need a blank check and a squad so deep even the B team could compete for European places. Some clubs do get success through parking the bus shamelessly, but diligently and with superb coordination. It’s worth mentioning that even those squads are assembled at significant cost and the success is over a  short term.

According to this article by Zach Slaton published by Forbes, Arsenal had the sixth highest total expenditure on players in the Premiership and should have finished between 4th and 10th in the last four years. While it does show Arsenal have overachieved given their spending and again highlights Wenger’s ability to get the most bang for the buck, there can be questions about how far the club can go with such a spending policy.

Can we really fault an ambitious, talented, and hard working individual for demanding more or better? Frankly, if I put myself in van Persie’s boots, I’d have similar doubts. As a fan I can find reasons to believe and ways to assuage the disappointment at the end of the season but for a true champion with few years left at the top it’s not the same.

That brings us to related questions like – Can Arsenal win major trophies? What do they have to do in order to achieve that?

The Gunners claim to have a self-sustaining model. To a large extent I agree with that assertion. However, as with most things Arsenal, that is not the complete truth. I am not an Usmanov fan and I don’t think having the Russian on board is the solution to all problems but some of his arguments are not without merit.

In this open letter, his company Red & White Securities Ltd. make the point that, “The self-financing was created to suit the major shareholders at the time, all of whom subsequently sold their shares.”

Kroenke and Usmanov between them have spent close to a billion pounds in acquiring the Arsenal shares. How much of that money has actually gone into the club or squad development? Look up the total amounts spent by Abramovic, Sheikh Mansour, the former and current Liverpool owners, and other foreign owners. Compare them with the Arsenal duo. Pay special attention to the ratio of money spent on squad to that spent filling the pocket of certain individuals. The Gunners are clearly lagging behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Usmanov should be allowed to invest or that the self-sustaining model is wrong. Just that given Arsenal’s approach it is not difficult to see why a brilliant player would not be convinced about the team’s chances to win. He’s not a fool, he can see what’s going on at other clubs and at Arsenal.

Those supporting the self-financing model, myself included, will have to accept that the club will remain strong enough to challenge for the titles, especially as long as Arsene is in charge of the football, but will more often than not fall just short at the final hurdle. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play might make an impact over the long term when the owners decide they don’t want to or can’t sustain their egregious spending but no one’s going to hold their breath.

Since I lack the resources to dig into and discover the real intentions of Billionaires like Usmanov and Korenke I don’t have a clear solution to offer. Yes, many people like straightforward answers. That’s how over simplified narratives develop and gain popularity. But those have little practical value except perhaps in debates with friends or foes.

One person who can do without such trivialized narratives is Arsene Wenger. In this saga he is probably the only person who has the respect of all parties, or at least of the majority. The previous and current owners trust him, even if it’s mostly about making more money for themselves. Majority of the fans know how important he is to the club and how the club have overachieved given the constraints he’s faced. Van Persie has become the player he is because of the manager’s faith and guidance. The striker has acknowledged this often enough.

Nevertheless, it’s Wenger who is once again finds himself between a rock and a hard place. It will be tough for him to get the best out of RvP next season and even harder to replace the striker. People talk about van Persie’s injury record or his age and find ways to rationalize that it’s best to sell him. If it were that simple Wenger, a man who takes major decisions based on detailed analysis of facts, would have offloaded the Dutchman a while back.

The simple truth, and this is very hard to take no doubt, is that it is virtually impossible for Arsenal to replace Robin van Persie over the next season or two. They will, in all likelihood, find it impossible to financially compete for a player of similar class even if they manage to identify one.

Players like Cesc and Van Persie are a rare breed as far as footballing talent goes. The manager will have to change the entire style of the team to fit a replacement in. Of course he’s done it in the past but it’s important to note that Arsenal keep coming close to the title without winning it. Retaining the big players is one vital cog in that winning wheel. It’s something Arsenal have sorely missed and Wenger knows this better than anyone else.

There is no guarantee that Arsenal will win with RvP in the side but the odds of the Gunners tasting success in major competitions without such a player are distinctly lower. With that in mind it’s understandable if Arsene still wants to retain the services of his captain but he will have a hard time either way as the fans will not be so kind or thoughtful.

That brings us to the most interesting and divided stakeholders in this saga, the fans.

We are a curious species. When players and managers offer empty platitudes we are displeased. Yet when they speak their mind we aren’t completely happy either. Fabregas rarely said anything last season amidst all the speculation and many fans didn’t take too kindly to it. Now that RvP has released a seemingly honest statement, even if people have turned it into a sinister plot, many fans have turned on the player.

The beauty here, and it’s a perverse kind of beauty, is that the statement in itself is harmless. Many saw it coming. The damage is not done by the words on the Dutchman’s website but by the reaction to those words by the fans.

If everyone accepted the status quo, and this is clearly an idealistic scenario, and simply went on with their jobs things would be different, easy even! The players are professionals they can deal with it. The manager was prepared to play Nasri last year and he will have no qualms over selecting Van Persie this season. Arsenal would have a strong squad and they could prove the striker wrong.

But the fans will react. And that reaction will cause all the mayhem. Arsenal are now in a spot not because of the statement but because of the way so many perceptions and opinions have changed. The club will most probably be forced to act even if it wasn’t in their initial plans.

There is a valid argument that the reaction has been induced by the statement from RvP, which many have deemed ill-advised and needless. But make no mistake this response from the fans has not been forced. Each one of us has a clear choice in front as regards to the manner in which we deal with Van Persie from this point forward. How many will do the right thing?

On a broad but related note, have you wondered why politician after politician, irrespective of the country, culture, or nature of politics, feeds us lies and false promises? Why do so many people in the public domain put up an act to shield their real selves? Why is there an overabundance of simplified narratives and a real dearth of meaningful analysis in any walk of life? It all comes back to us and how we deal with the naked truth and disconcerting details. This RvP chronicle is a classic example.

Most Gooners can say they have a right to be angry because of the love they’ve shown to the player and the loyalty towards the club. But is that completely true? Was the love a function of RvP’s performances or was it unconditional? Those fans who sang Denilson songs, to take one example, when the Brazilian was having a tough time could claim their support is unconditional but how many such individuals are there? If the support and love from the fans is contingent to a player’s efforts on the pitch and can turn at such short notice, can anyone honestly blame a player for putting his own interests first?

It’s easy to demand loyalty but few walk the path they want others to tread.

Conclusion

So where does all this leave us? What next for the Gunners?

There are only two ways this can go although there are subplots in either case.

My personal preference, predicated on the assumption that it is also Wenger’s choice, will be to keep RvP. Risk a return of his injury woes or a drop in form and gamble on the fact that he’s looked really solid in the last year and a half. Ensure a clear understanding that he’ll deliver the work rate that is vital to converting his talent into genius on the pitch. Groom Giroud, ease Wilshere back in, see how others like Santos and Podolski do over the course of the season. Look for answers to some structural issues, chiefly defensive ones, with the likes of Steve Bould at the training ground. Hope that the fans will back all the players who wear the shirt.

This way Arsenal could have a strong enough squad to compete for the trophies even if they don’t win one. A conscious focus and tactical shift could see this squad performing better in domestic cups and they can go all the way.

RvP might change his mind along the way or Arsenal get some time to find a solution to replace him.

The only real problem here is the loss of transfer fees. The significance of that can only be gauged by the actual amounts that are offered by clubs and not those rumoured in the tabloids. Kroenke might step in and make a decision as he reportedly did with Nasri last season. Arsenal have to take the risk on RvP’s age and injury concerns. You cannot build a competitive squad with relevant and meaningful experience if you quibble over such possibilities.

The other option is to sell the player. This is likely to the more commonly advocated alternative but I am yet to see a strong case made for selling the player that does not seem like rationalization. There is no doubt in my mind the Gunners will be significantly weaker if they sell the Dutchman. This isn’t the same as Henry in his last years at Arsenal where he was clearly dominating/suppressing the other talents in the side. In 07-08 the players were liberated when the Frenchman left but RvP’s departure will not have such an impact. If anything, the Dutchman is getting more out of his teammates through is intelligence, movement, and work rate.

That said, there is no doubt the club is bigger than the player and will survive. The Gunners might not win without the star but they should still compete for the top spots. If the structural issues are sorted and the new signings hit the ground running they could also end up with a bigger points haul than last season.

I don’t think selling RvP will be a disaster but it will be a massive setback that will significantly affect the odds of success in the coming years.


Euro 2012 Day 9 & 10: Podolski Celebrates Century, Four Gunners Return Home

June 18, 2012

100 games for the national team! That’s some achievement. Lukas Podolski should be proud of his efforts. He did celebrate it with a well-taken goal and is one of the two Arsenal players, along with Rosicky, who’ve moved on to the quarter-finals. But the news wasn’t good for Van Persie, Szczesny, Arshavin, and Bendtner who all bow out.

Podolski played just over an hour and created a couple of gilt-edged chances from the inside left channel to go with his goal. But the Germans had failed to convert their technical and tactical dominance into a convincing lead by the time he left the pitch. Like many teams in the tournament, Germany also missed a number of clear-cut chances.

Looking back, with three wins from their three group games – a feat they haven’t achieved before, it would seem Die Mannschaft had everything under control but it wasn’t the case. Had Badstuber’s tug on Bendtner’s shirt been penalized with the score still 1-1, the Germans would have conceded a penalty and gone down to 10 men. That could easily have seen them knocked out. While there is no argument Germany deserved to go through at the top of their group, it does once again highlight how close things can get at the highest level and the impact seemingly minor decisions can have on the fortunes of teams.

Coming back to the centurion, it was good to see Prinz Poldi being involved in the game a lot more than he did in the previous two. He spent a lot of time in the inside channels and picked up his goal via a classic poacher’s run from outside the D to the centre of the penalty box. Throughout the game his movement was commendable as he worked the channel without losing track of his defensive duties. Ultimately, the performance won him the Carlsberg Man of the Match award even though he only played two-thirds of the game. For him it was the perfect night.

It was great for me. To get my 100th cap, and then to score, I’ll remember that for the rest of my days. Everything was perfect for me today.

The other Arsenal player involved in that game would probably not say the same. Bendtner worked hard in the attack and picked up a quality assist from a well-worked set-piece but that wasn’t enough for Denmark. The striker has had a good tournament to go with some respectable performances with Sunderland on loan last season. His style of play and strengths will most likely not interest the top teams but the Dane can be a big player for a mid-level team in Europe. Hopefully, the transfer issue will be settled soon now that his involvement in the Euros is over.

Another person in a similar situation is Arshavin. The Russian will also be returning home, in an outcome that has shocked many after their strong start to the competition, after his side lost out to a dogged Greek unit. Like Bendtner, Arshavin has also impressed on loan and in this competition but the performances probably weren’t at the level needed to win the Premier League or Champions League. And with the arrival of Podolski on the left it’s quite likely that the fleet-footed winger will see his name on the back of a different club’s shirt next season.

In the other game on Saturday, Szczesny saw his side eliminated from the bench. Contrary to assumptions made by many based on some remarks by Poland manager Smuda, it was Tyton who rightfully retained his place in the starting line-up. With his tournament over early, Wojciech should be able to get a good vacation before returning to Arsenal. He’s undoubtedly a prodigious talent but the step up to a world class player is not always easy. For Szczesny the rest of the summer has to be about focus and hard work.

While the Arsenal custodian was on the bench when his side was eliminated, Rosicky missed his team’s decisive win through injury. It might even keep him out of the quarter-final against Portugal which might mean that his tournament is over as it’s difficult to imagine the Seleccao getting knocked out in that one. Rest, recover and get ready for the next season Little M.

That finally brings us to the person who was without a doubt Arsenal’s biggest player of last season. Robin van Persie’s national team crashed out of the Euros with three straight defeats. Some might have predicted a tough time for the Dutch in the group of death but few would have foreseen these results.

Bert van Marwijk tried to change his tactics in the final game but it was two games too late. In part his team’s performances against Portugal did mirror some of Arsenal’s troubles, especially the chaos and panic at the back once Holland failed to sustain any possession.

The manager touched upon this,

I think we started quite well. After the back pass from Gregory [van der Wiel] there was a lot of uncertainty in the team.

To me, this uncertainty or panic at the back stems from a lack of tactical and structural solidity. Once plan A fails, the teams must have something to fall back upon, a way to shut up shop till they can find their rhythm again. Arsenal can’t do it consistently and the Dutch have confirmed it’s a problem that can plague the best of teams and can end up making them look far worse than they actually are.

In fairness to BvM, his stars didn’t perform at the level expected from the best players in the world.

…the players who usually make the difference for us, for one reason or another, didn’t really reach their level.

Robben will get his share of the blame but Van Persie will also have to shoulder the burden of failure. If he’d taken some of the quality chances that came his way in the first game things could have been different for Denmark. Was the Arsenal skipper distracted by the discussions with Arsenal regarding his future or was he under pressure due to the calls for the inclusion of Huntelaar? As his manager said, for one reason or another, RvP didn’t quite live up to expectations in this tournament.

Of course, that doesn’t make him a useless player but it could certainly affect his confidence. More than anything else though, I hope he got a chance to see how difficult it can be at the highest level even with some of the biggest names in the game by your side. Football is about a team more than anything else. And if there is one that is based around creating chances for you and getting the best out of your abilities, you have to appreciate what you’re getting. The same won’t necessarily or seamlessly happen at other places.

At this point I don’t know what Van Persie wants, although speculation is that it’s not about the money, so I don’t want to judge him. Let’s hope he sees the benefits of staying with the Gunners sooner rather than regretfully later.

In other news of interest, the fixtures for next season are out. I’ll try to post my thoughts later in the day.


Euro 2012 Day 2 Roundup: Van Persie, Podolski, Bendtner, and others

June 10, 2012

Games in the Group of Death tend to be cagey affairs as teams cancel each other out, especially in the first round of fixtures where no one wants to lose. Today was no different as Denmark upset the Dutch while Germany eked out a win over Portugal with a solitary goal each.

Robin van Persie started for the Oranje amidst some chatter that Huntelaar might get the nod. The Arsenal skipper didn’t have a great World Cup and his on-pitch relationship with Sneijder and Robben isn’t telepathic to say the least.

In this game though, RvP saw a lot more of the ball and was on the end of a number of chances. The Dutchman attempted a total of 8 shots but only found the target with 2 of those. At least two of his chances were gilt-edged and he must be more disappointed than any fan that he couldn’t put one in. His movement was excellent as ever and he also set his teammates up on a number of occasions with clever passes.

On the whole the Netherlands seemed to struggle with their combination play for large parts of the game. It seemed as though they didn’t have the confidence to push bodies forward and were relying on individual moments of quality in attack rather than moves involving a number of players.

To an extent this was understandable given the rather average nature of their central defenders and goalkeeper which meant the midfield had to stay close and even the full-backs were restrained. The fears were justified when Krohn-Dehli was able to pick up a loose ball and skip past Heitinga as if he just wasn’t there. Stekelenburg allowed the ball through his legs from a tight angle. It still hard to believe at one point some Gooners wanted him at Arsenal.

The Danes stayed true to their compact style and rode their luck on the way to three points. On another day, as Bendtner himself said, Holland might have scored a couple from the chances they created but in such closely fought encounters a side always needs a bit of fortune.

Bendtner didn’t have a great game from an offensive point of view but that was more down to the lack of supply. He did pull his weight around to press from the front and did help his side sustain the pressure on the Oranje.

Another player of interest to Gooners was Ibrahim Afellay. The winger had a number of individual moments but his end product, in terms of shots or the final ball, was just not good enough. I’ll be surprised if he starts the next game.

The Ajax youngster Eriksen has also been touted as one to watch but there wasn’t much to note in his hardworking but unspectacular effort.

Holland have a mountain to climb and will have to produce much better quality in the final third especially now that Germany have beaten Portugal.

Jogi Low went with Hummels and Badstuber at the heart of his defence which meant there was no place for Mertesacker in the starting line-up. It wasn’t a surprise as the Bayern defender has a good understanding with his club teammates and is naturally left-footed while the Dortmund man is among the best centre-backs at the tournament.

Up front Podolski got a start on the left for a German side that was looking to take the initiative against a painfully negative Portugal team. However, this isn’t a style that the Germans are used to and they found it hard to break down an opponent that didn’t mind pulling all eleven men deep into its own half.

The new Arsenal signing probably had Germany’s best chance of the first period when Ozil’s square pass from wide on the left found him in acres of space inside the box. Podolski rushed his effort and was leaning back as he skied it woefully. The German striker also had a couple of other half-chances and connected well but his efforts were blocked. But the man who’ll either support or replace Van Persie matched the Dutchman’s knack for getting into excellent positions in and around the penalty area. Prinz Poldi also showed he wasn’t shy of dropping back to help his full-back out but Pereira wasn’t really testing him so it wasn’t a tough ask.

This was another game that was settled by that little dollop of kismet. Pepe’s shot in the first half hit the post and bounced out after falling on the line. It was literally a matter of inches and there was nothing anyone in a white shirt could have done about it. Similarly, the goal for Germany came from a cross that was deflected perfectly into the gap between Pepe and Pereira for Gomez to pounce. Of course, the striker’s header was class but the cross could easily have been a yard or two either side and the goal wouldn’t have come.

At the end Boateng also made a crucial last gasp tackle when Ronaldo was poised to pull the trigger from an excellent position just inside the box. Given the amount and quality of chances that Portugal created in the final few minutes of the game, it left me wondering how exciting this fixture would have been had they shown greater urgency from the start. The Selecção have an abundance of individual talent but I find it impossible to enjoy their performances as they’re invariably negative with their tactics.

On the day the most impressive performers in my opinion were Krohn-Dehli for Denmark, Sneijder for Holland, Hummels for Germany, and Coentrao for Portugal. In case you’re wondering, I don’t see any of them coming to the Arsenal.

On a side note, a tidbit that might be of interest to Desi Gooners was the presence of a player named Luciano Narsingh on the Holland bench. And while I’m roughly on the topic, I want to post the link to the survey for all Indian Gooners. Yesterday I just left a link to Karthik’s twitter page but forgot to link to the actual survey. Here it is. Do fill it out if you have a few moments, it’s not a long one. Also please share it with other Indian fans and your followers on twitter. It’s surprising that we don’t already have a strong Desi supporters club. Perhaps something will come off it.

On Sunday, we don’t have any Gunners involved but Spain V Italy should be a fascinating tactical battle. We might see one team defending with the ball while the other defends without it so it should be a locked game unless there is an early goal, but over 90 minutes it will be interesting to see how the Azzurri challenge La Furia Roja.


2010-11 Season Review: The Broad Picture

June 3, 2011

The Gunners ended the season with relegation form – 2W,3L,6D – in the final eleven games of the season. The fact that this form came straight after a horror fortnight that saw heartbreak in all the Cup fixtures, including the Carling Cup final, means that even the most positive of Gooners are finding it hard to sustain the faith.

The uncertainty surrounding some key players’ contracts and transfer rumours aren’t helping matters. Fans are looking for a glimmer of hope but so far, unless you count the departure requests of Denilson and Bendtner, there hasn’t been much encouragement.

However, I do believe this season wasn’t a complete failure and there were a number of positives. If we can shake off the memories of the last few weeks from our minds – it’s not easy, I know – we can look at the season more objectively.

Up until February 27, the season was going above the general expectations. Arsenal were in the Carling Cup final, challenging for the league title, and had just beaten Barcelona at home – something many never imagined possible.

While it wasn’t perfect, it’s only fair to say that till that moment the positives were outweighing the negatives of the season.

Nasri and Walcott delivered more than most expected, Fabianski and Szczesny did more than a respectable job in goal, Arshavin was making meaningful contributions even when his work rate wasn’t always up to scratch, Chamakh and Koscielny performed admirably in their first season, Wilshere was a revelation, Djourou had a very impressive run in the side, the rotating triangle in midfield provided better solidity and link play than the sole DM from the previous season, Wenger rotated the players more than he had done in previous seasons, the number of counter attacking goals conceded had been reduced, and Van Persie was just getting into top gear.

There were some problems as well. Cesc was struggling with fitness and never consistently hit peak form. Wenger was learning about rotations on the go and his 8-9 player changes often backfired resulting in needless replays and a second place finish in the Champions League group phase. The Gunners had already thrown away some points at home in games that should have been won.

On the whole it was looking like a good season in the making.

Normally, it’s hard to pinpoint at one or two pivotal moments that affect the course of a season. This time it’s the exact opposite. The 89th minute mix-up between Koscielny and Szczesny at Wembley dealt a severe blow to the psyche of the players. I believe the negative impact was amplified because everyone (players and fans) had sort of assumed this game will be won and the monkey will finally be off their backs.

As if that wasn’t enough, the red card for Van Persie at the Camp Nou completely killed the spirit of the players. After that it got progressively worse.

I believe the hard work and determination of the players was masking some of the inherent systemic weaknesses up until that moment. Once the joie de vivre, so to speak, was lost the team unravelled and some of the systemic problems came to the fore. The defence was exposed more often and rather easily; the attack seemed to lack sharpness; and the possession game felt laborious and tedious.

The Gunners conceded 16 goals in the last 10 games while accumulating 11 points. I haven’t checked but I won’t be surprised if that turns out to be the worst run of form in the Wenger era.

It is easy to blame the players’ mentality, their manager’s tactics and choices, and so on. But if you really think about it such things are very difficult to control once they get out of hand.

Just look at Chelsea. They got off to a flying start and looked destined to run away with the league. From the middle of November though, they had a two month period in which they actually did worse than Arsenal’s relegation form! In nine games they managed – 1W, 4D, 4L – 7 points while conceding 14 goals.

They had the same experienced, proven players with winning mentality that won them so many titles over the last few years but it didn’t help.

What it shows is that there can be times when something goes horribly wrong with a team. It’s hard to pin point just what the problem is and solving it is that much more difficult. For some fans it’s easy to vent their frustration by blaming the players’ effort or attitude, the manager’s policies, etc. For those who are actually trying to do something it is a lot harder than that.

Of course there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. I have my own thoughts on the perceived problems and have shared them all through the season. I will also try to summarize some of those issues in the coming days. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about protecting Wenger or the players. I wish they needed my services but they patently don’t. This is about being objective and rational. Any balanced analysis has to explore reasons behind the problems and must look at the issues from all possible point of views. I am just trying – trying being the keyword – to do that.

Wenger recently mentioned that in 2003 Arsenal had the best away record but didn’t win the league. In 2004 they were able to improve on certain issues and we all know the result. In 2011 we have again finished the season with the best away record (although not comparable to 2003). If 2012 comes anywhere close to the performances from eight years ago, it will be a memorable season.

For that to happen Wenger has to achieve something he hasn’t been able to do in the last few years. The team has to take two steps forward without taking a step back. In the last few seasons the Gunners have toggled between various states. For instance, this season Arsenal topped the mini-league of the top four sides. Last year they were bottom. Last year the Gunners had a very good home record but this year it’s been dismal. Arsene has to ensure the away form and the performances of the big games remain constant while the home form improves and fewer mistakes are made. Now I’m getting into a discussion of the next season so more on this in the coming days.


Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part II

March 30, 2011

Before I begin, I just want to take the opportunity thank everyone who sent me supportive emails over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply to everyone individually. The Gooner empire is going through a difficult period and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. There was a time when I got actively involved in the discussions but now it seems pointless to go through the same arguments over and over again. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing but just that I’ll try to keep it about football and analysis of the details of the game rather than opinions on individuals even though that seems to be the popular thing to do at the moment.

Coming back to the game against West Brom, I wanted to talk about a couple of other observations I had.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

The first image is from the build up to the moment when Van Persie hit the bar and Ramsey couldn’t score from the rebound.

What I noticed about this move was that Clichy actually made a run on the inside channel. Full-backs these days don’t do this on a regular basis and I guess there must be a good reason for that. But there are times when I feel such runs can be extremely useful in opening the opposition up. Evra is one player who does create and utilize such situations rather well.

I was happy that Clichy moved in with the ball from the Arsenal half before playing it to Arshavin on the wing and continuing on his run. Hopefully we will see more of this from Sagna as well. Both Frenchmen did use this tactic and excelled in the 07-08 season but that used to be in a 4-4-2 formation.

In that year the understanding between the wide midfielders and the full-backs was impeccable. If this game is a sign that those movements are coming back it can only lead to a massive improvement in Arsenal’s attacking options.

There was another move in that game which gave me some food for thought. This came just after the half-hour mark. Clichy got the ball on the left inside the Arsenal half. He moved forward with it and played it to Van Persie who had come deep and wide. The Dutchman rolled it first time to Arshavin, who squared it to Ramsey in acres of space. The following snapshot captures this moment.

 

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It’s interesting to note that when Ramsey is about to get the ball there is a great deal of space behind the WBA left-back and central defender. Nasri is free, wide on the right but is also pretty static. Sagna is jogging forward.

Now I’m not sure why Nasri didn’t make a run into this space. It should not have been too tough for Ramsey to find a pass into such a vacant area. Granted, at least one of the defenders would have gotten back to track the Frenchman, but with this kind of space who wouldn’t back Samir to dribble past his man?

I’m fairly certain if it had been Cesc in place of Rambo, Nasri would have been off in a flash. We have seen that combination work quite often. So was this opportunity missed because Ramsey hasn’t played regularly and Nasri didn’t know what to expect?

It’s difficult to say exactly what went on. There are many players involved and each has multiple decisions to make. Any one, if out of sync, could break the move.

In this case what eventually happened was that Rambo took a couple of touches while running square. Then he passed it across to Sagna who’d moved forward. Ultimately the winger and full-back were hemmed into a blind alley.

 

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Arsenal get into such positions on the wings quite often. Very rarely does something come out of it and when it does it’s usually due to some individual magic by Cesc, who always seems to be around when needed.

Those who’ve been reading my match reports regularly will know that I often talk about switching flanks at pace or moving the ball at a faster tempo. The above situation is a classic example where moving the ball from the left to the right without many touches could have led to an incisive attack. But for that to happen all the players need to be on the same page and that’s not easy to achieve when there are so many changes to the starting eleven due to injuries and other reasons.

In such cases the functional approach of Fergie and other managers could come in handy. It’s not easy to get in behind teams that are defending deep. If the wide players are under instructions to be alert for such runs when the ball is on the other flank it could speed up the moves. Not only would it lead to more threatening moments, it will also create space for the full-back to run into thereby creating two good options for the man on the ball. As I said in the previous article, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cesc, and even Rosicky are capable of finding the runner when they have that kind of space and time on the ball in the middle of the park.

While it can’t be completely eliminated, such tactics will also reduce the number of times the Gunners run into cul-de-sacs on the wings before passing it backwards.

I want to end with a disclaimer which seems very important in the current climate. Such articles are not meant to prove that Wenger is tactically clueless or that some players don’t know what they are doing. They’re certainly not intended to imply that I can see certain things on the pitch that the manager, his staff, or the players can’t. Only the extremely ignorant can fool themselves into believing such self-indulgent notions.

Football is a dynamic game and a lot goes on that we tend to miss. I’m just trying to discuss some observations and I have no doubt the coaching staff and the players do the same. It could be that what they try doesn’t always work out. It could also be that they might have a genuine blind spot somewhere or a completely different way of looking at these things.

Personally, I’m off the opinion that Arsenal could do with some changes/additions to the coaching staff. I also feel there is room for the team to improve on the tactical front. But I try not to disrespect the people who have been at the club for years and have worked hard sincerely. And I never assume it’s as simple as saying “use more width”, “put in more crosses”, and stuff like that. That only works in pundit-land not in real world football management.


Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part I

March 27, 2011

I have been away from football and the news for the last few days but yesterday I got the chance to watch the West Brom game once again. I wanted a relook as I’d noticed some moments while watching live that seemed worth analyzing. This article is a quick discussion based on one of these observations.

In the image below we can see Arsenal get into a very exciting position just before the hour mark.

Click on the image to see a bigger version

Wilshere is on the ball. Arsenal have three players on the edge of the box and Van Persie in a good position just outside. Clichy is hugging the far touchline and is completely unmarked. The full-back has his left arm up but Wilshere doesn’t see it or sees it but decides that a pass down the middle is a better option.

The lines I have drawn represent what I was hoping to see. The thick line would be a bent run from Clichy as he comes into the box unseen and unmarked. The thinner line would have been a chipped pass from Wilshere, something he excels at. Such a pass would have allowed Chamakh and Bendtner to get into extremely dangerous positions at the near and back post. Arshavin could have made a run to the centre of the box while RvP could have positioned himself on the edge of the D for a cut-back. West Brom would have been scrambling to tackle Clichy and defend against four attackers in the box. As we can see the hosts had four or five players on their left side and would have struggled to get enough bodies back. We’ve seen Barca create and exploit such situations quite regularly.

Now this is just a single instance and the pass down the middle wasn’t a bad option in itself. So I don’t want to criticize any player based on this. But it does give us a few points to ponder.

Why don’t Arsenal create such situations more often? Do the Gunners prefer shorter passes and attacks down the middle? Is this an issue with the philosophy of the manager and the training routines? Is the longer pass over the top much more difficult to execute?

These questions don’t have straightforward answers. For instance, we’d all like to see Arsenal attack in numbers, stretch the play, get bodies into the box, and ultimately score a lot of goals, but it’s pretty obvious that the above situation leaves the defence completely exposed as both full-backs are really high up the field and there isn’t a defensive minded midfielder on the pitch.

Another point could be that such an instance can only arise if the opponents are not alert to the man on the wing. Once the Gunners start using this tactic, the other team will learn to cover for it. Of course, it can still be done but it’s so difficult that only one team in the world is able to pull it off consistently.

However, I do feel that Arsenal should try to use this tactic a lot more often and it has to come from the training pitches.

If you watch this particular play on video, you’ll notice that Clichy barely moves on the touchline. That tells me he is not alert to the possibility of making a run in behind and into the box but is looking for a pass out wide. As an extension, I’d think that his instructions are to hug that touchline and offer width. A decent approach no doubt but one that can be tweaked to make better use of such moments.

If the Frenchman had made the run, even if the ball had been played exactly as it was to Arshavin, the Russian would have had better options.

Click on the image to see a bigger version

As we can see in the snapshot above, there is a great deal of space behind the West Brom right-back. Clichy’s run – if he’d bent it and stayed onside – could have distracted the defender, it could have created more space for Arshavin, and the Russian might have been in a position to play Clichy in on goal.

Don’t be fooled into believing that Clichy isn’t good enough to make that run. Running into such a space would be a piece of cake for the Frenchman. He does many more difficult things on the pitch. In fact, that is another reason I feel it’s something the Gunners aren’t doing enough in training.

One could argue that it is up to the players to make such choices but I find it difficult to believe the manager and coaches don’t have a big say in it. Arsenal have had some trouble getting the balance right in the full-back areas since the change to the 4-3-3 formation. I’m sure a lot of work goes into studying their positions and instructing them on their movements.

I do agree that the long pass over the top is not an easy one to execute. But with the likes of Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, and now Ramsey in midfield, Arsenal have plenty of players who can make it work.

I don’t wish to imply that Wenger doesn’t train his players well but it seems to me that Le Boss either doesn’t like this trick much or hasn’t been able to mix it well enough into an undoubtedly arduous training regime.

When the first eleven is fit and firing this might not be needed but when we have the likes of Chamakh and Bendtner on the pitch I’d feel this is a better tactic than playing it down the middle so often. Hopefully, we will see more incisive use of such moments in the near future. Such subtle issues can be the difference between one point or three.

In the coming days I’ll discuss some other moments from the game.


Happy Or Worried To See RvP In Squad To Face Barca?

March 7, 2011

This morning brought what many will consider a pleasant surprise. Robin van Persie was photographed training with the squad and has been named in what is a 19 man squad to face Barcelona. This will, of course, have to be trimmed to 18 on the morning of the game, but for now it seems there is a chance the Dutchman will be fit to play some part in that game,

Normally, I’d be delighted to have Van Persie back for any game. As Arsenal fans, we’ve seen big players miss far too many important games, so to have someone of the calibre of the Dutch striker back for such a fixture has to be seen as a big positive.

In this particular instance though, I’m more worried than happy. It’s not an easy feeling to justify but that doesn’t change what I’m feeling.

I guess I’m just worried that the striker is being rushed back.

To be fair, Arsene has shown this season that he is being extra cautious with every player. The number of rotations and the way he has handled the return of Djourou, Walcott, and others, all highlight the fact that Wenger is more risk averse than ever before.  It can be argued that Le Boss deserves the benefit of the doubt and will not rush RvP unless he is fully fit.

My feeling, and it’s important to stress that this is a feeling not an entirely rational thought, is that Arsene thinks this game is too big and any kind of a contribution from the striker can make a difference.  I, on the other hand, feel that Arsenal’s performance in this game will not vary too much with or without the striker.

RvP is as his best in and around the opposition penalty box but Arsenal are not going to spend too much time there. There can be an argument that his delivery on set-pieces and the ability to finish half-chances will be crucial. My opinion is that most of the chances Arsenal get will be on counter attacks or set-pieces. Bendtner could be just as useful in either case.

I’d rather have a fully fit Van Persie for the run in to the Premiership title race than risk him in a game that is going to be a stiff challenge on the best of days. I’m convinced that if Fabregas and RvP stay fit for the rest of the season Arsenal will have a real shot at the League title. Without either one of them it will be touch and go, while missing both will make it more a function or luck than ability.

If it had been Walcott, I’d have accepted the benefits of taking a risk as Theo provides a unique threat that can be particularly lethal in such a game. But with Van Persie I don’t see that argument in the context of this tie.

Usually, I trust the manager and the players to get such decisions and their priorities right. In this case it would mean leaving RvP on the bench and bringing him on in the final fifteen minutes only if the game is realistically within reach and not if it’s level or out of reach.

However, I’m worried that Van Persie won’t be happy to sit out of such a game again and Arsene too might succumb to the temptation of starting his best players. It’s just that thought that is making me uncomfortable despite a seemingly positive injury update.


Arshavin, Walcott, Rosicky, Nasri – Who should start?

November 8, 2010

Based on the comments left on the match analysis after the last game, I’m guessing many gooners were unhappy with the choice of Nasri on the left. They’d have preferred Arshavin. Based on the Russian’s cameo in the final half hour and the Frenchman’s hard working yet uninspiring initial display, obviously with the benefit of hindsight, this seems like a valid point.

I’m not completely convinced by that argument as I feel Arshavin and Walcott on the wings would have left us exposed defensively. Nonetheless, it presents an excellent topic for discussion as Wenger will have to make some tricky choices because right now we have 4 players – Arshavin, Walcott, Nasri, and Rosicky – all in good form, competing for two spots. And I’m not even considering the likes of Vela, Eboue, and JET. No disrespect to them but when the big guns are available they will always be on the fringes.

Among those four, Arshavin, when he plays, will probably be on the left. Similarly, Walcott will be on the right. I don’t see either of them being that effective on the other flank.

Yes there is an argument that Arshavin could play centrally, but we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons that Wenger doesn’t like that and I’d like to believe he’s given that some thought and discarded the option for valid reasons.

I’m sure we’d all like to see Walcott on the left/centre emulating the feats of Henry but I can’t see that happening right now. Maybe in a couple of years after Theo learns to control the ball better.

So for now I’ll go forward with the assumption that Arshavin and Walcott will play on the left and right respectively. Rosicky and Nasri, as we’ve seen time and again, are far more flexible and can do a job anywhere in midfield.

So the possibilities are – Arshavin with any one of the three on the right, Walcott with any one of the three on the left, or with Rosicky and Nasri on either flank.

The Russian and the Englishman make an explosive combination. As I said above, I feel it’d leave us defensively weak on both flanks, but I will acknowledge this pair was brilliant against Blackpool and pretty good against Blackburn. Should we take more of a gamble on them, especially in home games? Will it add the pace, directness, and urgency that we need to break teams down early on?

Then there is the choice of picking either Arshavin or Walcott. Obviously form and fitness will be an issue but considering that right now both are in equally good shape, Arsene will have a tough choice to make.

Against Newcastle Wenger went with Theo (perhaps Arshavin had still not recovered completely from the virus) but it didn’t work out. Enrique and Gutierrez did an excellent job of denying him any space.

On the other flank Nasri wasn’t able to create much either. Would Rosicky have done better? Based on what I’ve seen Arsene picks Nasri whenever the Frenchman is fit and doesn’t need a rest. This frequently leads to changes in his position.

Clearly, Wenger thinks this is not a problem and I don’t have hard evidence to argue against that but I’d certainly prefer if Nasri was given one wing and time to adapt in that position. By that logic I’d always play Nasri on the right and Rosicky on the left. One of them might have to come central when Cesc is missing or rested but that’s a different issue.

Effectively, it would be Arshaivn/Rosicky with Walcott/Nasri leading to four different combinations.

The final choice would depend on the opposition, venue, and tactics.

For instance, at home we could go with a somewhat riskier but far more attacking 23-14 combination. In the bigger games we could have the more technical and defensively stronger 7-8 pairing.

Tactical decisions could also make a difference. For example, Newcastle were clearly much stronger on their left than they were on their right, both defensively and offensively. In such a case it would be better to have a technical, hard working player like Nasri on our right with Arshavin exploiting their relatively weaker flank where he’d get more space.

In contrast, there could be other teams like Bolton or Blackburn who have a weak left back. Walcott could terrorize them all day long. We could pick Arshavin or Rosicky on the other side depending on the venue.

Then there are games like the upcoming visit to Molineux where it’s hard to say whether the hosts will be stronger on the right or the left. One could say that Jarvis provides a strong threat down the left but dealing with him will be down to Sagna and I’m confident the Frenchman will deal with the threat. The choice of the attackers would depend on the quality of the fullbacks but in the case of Wolves it’s difficult to say one is really better than the other. In such cases the best option would be to rotate so that we have a fresher/sharper attacking player in the starting line-up.

Walcott has played twice in the last week so it would be best to give him a breather and have him on the bench as an impact sub. Arshavin should start on the left and based on my reasoning mentioned above Nasri should start on the right. Of course, there is always the injury angle and that could keep the Frenchman out. In that case Wenger might have to pick Theo for his third game in a week or shift Rosicky to the right.

I just read everything I’ve said so far and realized these are far more complicated decisions than I’d initially realized. There are just too many factors involved but these choices are critical to the shape and balance of the team. As we saw against Newcastle, once they closed our attacking options on the right we looked bereft of ideas and lacked creativity.

By now you must have picked up the fact that I don’t have a definitive opinion on this issue. It can be argued in many ways and it’s really difficult to say one choice is better than the other without the benefit of hindsight.

Of course, Arsene is paid big money to make such decisions so he doesn’t have an excuse for getting it wrong but it does give us plenty to talk about. Can you make a case for the choices on the flanks?


Time For Van Persie To Do An Essien?

November 4, 2010

I was bemused when I read the news that Robin van Persie has been called up to the Dutch national squad. I’m not even sure he is in full training yet and can’t see the reason for this inclusion.

It seems Holland manager Bert van Marwijk has done a Jekyll and Hyde act here. I really liked the fact that De Jong has not been called up, in some ways it’s an extension of the ban voluntarily imposed on him by his national manager. It could be that De Jong has had a disagreement with Van Marwijk but I back the manager in this instance and appreciate his decision.

On the flip side the Dutch coach’s decision to include RvP in his squad seems inexplicable. Is he fighting a personal battle here because of the way Arsene blamed the Dutch for Van Persie’s injury last year? Why else would he want to call up someone who has been out of action for such a long time and that too for a completely inconsequential game?

I’d really like to know if he has been in touch with RvP about his fitness and recuperation. It will be disappointing if it turns out that the Dutchman told his manager that he was fit or will get fit by that time.

Given the number of injuries Van Persie has had in the last few seasons I actually think he should take a break from the international game. He should follow the lead of Essien and make himself unavailable for selection for a short while. The Ghanaian has had similar misfortune with injuries over the last two seasons and has done the right thing by taking a temporary break from internationals.

As far as I know after this ill-advised and awfully scheduled friendly in the middle of November, the next international fixture is anyway in March. Van Persie should see if he can remain fit for Arsenal till that period before going away for an international. I’d actually prefer if he excused himself till the end of the season.

I understand such a decision could lead to some friction with Van Marwijk but only if the national manager is extremely petty-minded. Surely he can see his player has been suffering from crazy injuries and needs to play consistently for his club before he can be considered ready for internationals.

Ultimately I guess this is something that boils down to the player himself. Depending on his stage of recovery Van Persie will have to decided whether he wants to risk himself in a meaningless international or not.  But I guess it won’t hurt if someone at the club reminded him of Essien’s decision.


Van Persie’s Performance In The Final Was Pure Class!

July 12, 2010

I understand many people might not have noticed Robin in the Final. He rarely got the ball, hardly got a chance to shoot, and wasn’t directly involved with most of threatening moments. Combined with his previous outings some might write this off as a bad tournament for our star striker.

In previous articles I wrote that Sneijder and Robben weren’t really creating much for Van Persie and his performances have been affected by the individualistic nature of the duo. Sneijder has scored five goals and Robben has had a couple of good moments so they are being regarded as the best Dutch players in the tournament, so much so that they were nominated for the Golden Ball. The facts tell a different story and one that will mostly go unnoticed.

Let’s look at the passing stats. Van Persie made 6 passes to Sneijder and he received 3 from the midfielder. He also made 4 passes to Robben and received 2. These numbers don’t include the completed passes so it’s quite likely that the number of times he received the ball from these two must be less than 5. And this is over 120 minutes of football! To put this in perspective, Villa received 10 passes from Xavi alone in 106 minutes and Xavi obviously completed most of his passes.

Interestingly, Sneijder had five shots on goal with only one on target while Robben had four with two on target. And the stats don’t have a column that says “missed sitters”. Van Persie had a Single shot that wasn’t on target. Clearly, his teammates were more interested in their own glory than finding a teammate in a better position.

From what I’ve said so far it’s probably sounding more like criticism of the two stars from the Champions League final. You might be wondering how does that make Van Persie’s performance a class act.

I say Robin was pure class because at the end of the day he ran close to 14 Km. More than anyone else in the Dutch side and  bettered only by Xavi and Iniesta. Some might scoff at that and feel that running on a football pitch doesn’t amount to a brilliant performance. But I feel if you observe the details of the game it really makes a big difference.

Firstly, most strikers would end up sulking and remonstrating on the pitch if they don’t get service. Van Persie didn’t do that.

Secondly, strikers aren’t renowned for their work rate. Normally it’s the central midfielders who do most of the running as we saw with Xavi and Iniesta. So the fact that Van Persie worked his socks off must be acknowledged and respected.

Finally, there is the importance of movement. As I’ve noted in earlier articles, the Dutch team retains possession at the back. Their keeper completed the most passes in the Final!! Robin received as many passes from Stekelenburg and Heitinga as he did from Sneijder! These are staggering facts.

Van Persie’s movement at the top allowed them to play the long balls that moved their play forward because their midfielders were focussed on kicking the opponents rather than the ball. Moreover Robben got through on goal a couple of times when he was playing down the middle. It was due to the movement by Van Persie and for the second chance it was also a direct result of a header won by the Arsenal striker.

I know these are minor details from a very big game. In itself hardly any of them would be considered significant. But when you put it all together the picture is clear. Van Persie was isolated by his glory hunting teammates but he maintained his focus and selflessly worked harder than the others to achieve a dream.

All facts being same, if Robben had converted one chance and if the Dutch had won, it is obvious that Sneijder and Robben would have been considered their star players despite their weaknesses and mistakes. Few would have noted that Sneijder’s goals had a generous dose of freak and Robben missed and messed up a lot more than he scored. Van Persie would have been considered a disappointment. Many probably think that even now.

I’m sure Van Persie knew this will be the case. Unless he scored the winning goal he wasn’t going to get much credit for his performances in this tournament. And since he wasn’t getting the ball in and around the box it was never going to happen for him. Even then he continued to run, played for his team,dropped deep, moved to the flanks, and gave his all till the last moment. I will always remember this game as the one where Van Persie played as well a striker can play football without the ball!


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